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The meaning and origin of the expression:Build a better mousetrap

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Build a better mousetrap

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Build a better mousetrap'?

To 'build a better mousetrap' is to make an improvement to an existing product or service. It especially refers to simple and straightforward changes that are obvious advances on earlier devices.

The thinking behind the expression 'build a better mousetrap' is made clearer by looking at the full proverbial version, which is - 'build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door'.

The notion being expressed is that, in order to make a product or service a success, you don't need hype or marketing - if the product is good enough customers will seek it out.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Build a better mousetrap'?

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.The person credited with coining this expression is Ralph Waldo Emerson. In May 1882 the Atlanta Constitution newspaper printed this and ascribed it to Emerson. :

The Value of Good Work.
If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mouse trap than his neighbors, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.

You may have noticed that the proverb 'build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door' isn't exactly what Emerson said. That version appeared in print slightly later than the above, probably written by an now unknown journalist paraphrasing Emerson's original.

Actually, it may also be that the above quotation may not have been Emerson's. He died in April 1882, before the line was printed in the newspaper. It may be that someone heard him speaking in public and what was printed was their transcription.

We don't have records of what Emerson said on the subject in any of his numerous speaking engagements. We do know what he write though - his journal for 1855 was published after his death and contains this:

If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.

That is essentially the same idea as the 'build a better mousetrap...' phrase we are interested in here.

It is quite likely that Emerson added the mousetrap to his earlier versions of this idea after hearing about the US entrepreneur Jay Gould.

Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.Gould was a notorious wheeler-dealer in late 19th century America. He became famous there as the epitome of the self-made man who had gained his large fortune by various unscrupulous deals.

In March 1881 Gould gave an interview to The Baltimore Sun. The story he recounted became well known and may well have been what prompted Emerson (or the person who transcribed Emerson's speech) to suggest that a better mousetrap was the route to success. Here's the relevant part of the article:

In the course of a long interview ... the great manipulator condescended to some personal reminiscences. His first visit to New York was during the Crystal Palace exhibition. "I was a mere boy," he said: "I was full of ambition, and I brought a little thing with me from my country home that I thought was going to make my fortune and revolutionise the world. It was a mouse-trap."

The story of Gould and his mousetrap was well enough known in 1881 for it to have travelled as far as London. Here's an article from the New York newspaper The Buffalo Commercial, June 1881:

Jay Gould's mousetrap is celebrated in England too. London Truth says: "Jay Gould the other day drew a cheque for £500,000. This was not bad for a man whose whole fortune, when he first went to New York, consisted of a patent mousetrap."

Emerson would surely have been acquainted with Gould 'mousetrap' story - he was probably the most famous financier in the USA in 1881. The substitution in 1882 of 'make a better mousetrap' to Emerson's previous 'make better chairs and knives' suggests that Gould was his model.

It's interesting to look at 'build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door' in our current online world.

Web users literally vote with their mouse. Google has alwayd encouraged website publishers not to engage in hype or 'black-hat' SEO to drive traffic to their website. Their advice has always been 'create content that people want and it will rise to the top in SERP rankings'. Not so far away from Emerson's advice in 1882.